The Fossil Fuel Industry's Big Lie
Powerful ad and PR agencies are helping fossil fuel giants sow doubt in climate science and branding them believers in clean alternatives. Don't buy it.
News Beat is a multi-award-winning podcast that melds hard-hitting journalism with hip-hop to inform, educate, and inspire. In this episode, we examine the fossil fuel industry’s legacy of deceit regarding the climate crisis and how big-name PR & ad firms help spread lethal lies.
Climate historian Benjamin Franta was digging through archival documents inside the library of the old DuPont estate in Wilmington, Delaware a few years ago when he stumbled upon a speech from the infamous scientist Edward Teller.
The transcript was from a keynote address the physicist gave at a 1959 symposium of oil executives celebrating the industry’s 100th year of existence.
Teller, one of the masterminds of the hydrogen bomb and controversial to this day, used his platform to warn of the severe destruction the combustion of fossil fuels would wreak across the globe if continued unabated.
He prophetically predicted it would result in an ever-warming planet, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and mass flooding along coastal areas by the year 2000. He also offered a solution to the impending crisis: Replace fossil fuels within the next few decades.
Global warming, Teller warned, was coming.
“I was shocked,” Franta, the head of the Climate Litigation Lab at Oxford Sustainable Law Programme, tells News Beat podcast.
“It really reframed how I understood this entire problem,” Franta continues. “I thought climate change was essentially a new problem. But as I learned more and more, I realized that the industry had been aware of this problem from long before I had been born.”
It’s impossible to say how those in attendance immediately digested this news. Was it initially met with hostility, resentment, concern, apathy, complete disbelief? We’ll never know. What is glaringly obvious, though, is that through its own half-century of destructive actions, the fossil fuel industry not only ignored the warnings of Teller and other scientists, including their own, but used their enormous wealth, power, and influence to deny the science around climate change, spread misinformation, and later, market itself as environmentally conscious energy suppliers.
That Franta was stunned by what his research uncovered is entirely understandable. While it’s common knowledge that the fossil fuel industry has long been aware of the harmful effects of greenhouse gasses, conventional wisdom held that the link between CO2 emissions and rising temperatures, at least among oil giants, didn’t come until around the 1970s. That was when an internal Exxon (now ExxonMobil) study in 1978—19 years after Teller’s speech—found that “a doubling of carbon dioxide is estimated to be capable of increasing the average global temperature by from 1° to 3°C, with a 10°C rise predicted at the poles.”
Why We Covered This Topic
With the planet on the brink of ecological collapse, the fossil fuel industry continues its aggressive marketing efforts, with dubious claims around so-called “carbon capture” and other technologies to sell itself as a problem solver for a crisis they, ironically, helped create! And those ballyhooed green energy investments? Well, those claims appear to be widely exaggerated, according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report from 2019.
“Investment by oil and gas companies outside their core business areas has been less than 1% of total capital expenditure,” the IEA said. “For the moment, there are few signs of a major change in company investment spending.”
Working behind the scenes to aid the fossil fuel industry in its duplicitous framing of the climate crisis are powerful ad firms, along with influential media organizations such as The Washington Post that are also in the business of providing sponsored content for various corporations—essentially paid posts that closely resemble news pieces.
It’s an incestuous, perverted, and to be completely honest, dangerous game these corporations are playing, especially as governments try to keep their pledge and prevent the planet from warming 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the standard set by the historic 2016 Paris Agreement. To put everything into perspective, the planet has already warmed 1.2°C, according to scientists, underscoring the importance of aggressive climate action within the next few years. Or as one of the scientists behind a United Nations climate report released this spring put it, we’ve reached the proverbial “now or never” moment.
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
As we outlined above, the fossil fuel industry was aware of “global warming” for at least a half-century, according to the speech unearthed by Franta, who noted that the industry was hiring scientific consultants to study pollution as early as the 1960s.
In 1959, Teller warned of dangerous consequences if greenhouse gasses continued to spew into the atmosphere and warm the planet: Increasing global temperatures, melting ice caps, sea level rise, and coastal flooding.
For decades, the fossil fuel industry has used aggressive marketing tactics to win over the American public despite their knowledge that the planet would continue to warm. One of the clips you’ll hear in this episode is actually from a Royal Dutch Shell documentary called “Climate of Concern.” Released in 1991, it talks about the threat posed by a changing climate.
As both of our guests on this episode explain, the fossil fuel industry’s marketing of sustainable solutions is belied by its own actions. Here’s one example, courtesy of Duncan Meisel: “There was a really great study of advertisements from Chevron over the course of a year, where 80 percent of them mentioned something about ‘sustainable,’ or ‘green,’ or ‘recycle,’ or ‘clean.’ And actually, in that same year, only 1.3 percent of their research and development money was going towards clean energy.”
Clean Creatives, a campaign consisting of advertising and public relations professionals collectively seeking to end the industry’s collaboration with polluters and their allies, released a report called the “F-List,” which outed 90 firms working with the fossil fuel industry. Meisel, the executive director of Clean Creatives, said the report was intended to create transparency and educate ad agency employees who are concerned about working for companies with ties to polluters.
Governments are increasingly turning to the courts to hold fossil fuel giants accountable for their actions, with some modeling litigation after “Big Tobacco” lawsuits.
Who We Interviewed & What They Said
Benjamin Franta, an attorney, historian, and head of the climate litigation lab at Oxford Sustainable Law Programme.
“The big oil companies are advertising themselves heavily as clean energy companies, you know, they, they tout all the activity in, you know, algae research, algae, biofuel research, or even, you know, if they're working on solar or something like that…but if you look at how much money they're actually spending on it, it's very, very little. For some companies, it's like 0.1 percent of their investments and the rest 99.9 percent go into more fossil fuels.”
Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives, a project dedicated to ending partnerships between advertising and PR firms and the fossil fuel industry and third-party groups.
“These are [fossil fuel] companies that are almost entirely invested in one or two products. And so if that action ever happened, to limit the use of those products, they would have a very difficult time surviving…The other thing they do with advertising and PR companies is they try to sow doubt, they try to make it seem like the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy would be too hard, too expensive, cost too many jobs.”
Check out Benjamin Franta’s TED Talk on this subject, titled “Global Warming: From Scientific Warning to Corporate Casualty”
This great piece of journalism from the ‘HEATED’ Substack about a misleading ExxonMobil ad that aired on the uber-popular New York Times podcast ‘The Daily’
A helpful explainer from NYT about “greenwashing” and what to look out for
Here’s Clean Creative’s “F-List” report from 2021
Now, please head over to your favorite podcast app and listen to the episode!
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News Beat is a multi-award-winning podcast brought to you by Morey Creative Studios and Manny Faces Media.
Audio Editor/Sound Designer/Producer/Host: Manny Faces
Editor-In-Chief/Producer: Christopher Twarowski
Managing Editor/Producer: Rashed Mian
Episode Art: Jeff Main
Executive Producer: Jed Morey